Even after all this time he cannot understand. I dare not change history.
Early Doctor Who specialized in the “historical” story, in keeping with its original remit as an educational show and, indeed, as a means of leveraging the BBC’s enormous investment in period costumes, sets, and actors. By the middle of the third season, the show had already visited prehistoric times, Kublai Khan’s China, the Aztec empire, revolutionary France, Nero’s Rome, the Crusades, and mythological Greece, not to mention Britain in various times and places. But is an historical Doctor Who story actually an “historical” if no one knows the history involved?
In John Lucarotti’s “The Massacre of St. Bartholomew’s Eve” (Story Production Code W), the Doctor and Steven arrive in sixteenth century France just outside of Paris, fresh from the deaths of pseudo-companions Sara Kingdom and Katarina—though notably the story does not make mention of those events. One might have expected lighter fare after the dark ending of the prior story, but instead we are treated to the eponymous massacre of Protestants by Catholics in Paris and surroundings in 1572. Even for contemporary viewers, the history on display here is not considered common knowledge. Lucarotti spends several scenes establishing the animosity between Protestants and Catholics in the era, ostensibly for Steven’s benefit, as he is as lost as the viewer. Prior historicals never spent this much explicit effort setting the stage for events.
The effect mirrors the kind of exposition one finds in stories taking place in far futures, where, say, the conflict between the Sensorites and the humans needs to be explicated for the plot to function. There’s a tension in this story that is lacking in the other historicals—while the title hints at what is to come, the viewer’s own historical knowledge doesn’t fill in the gaps in the same way that the presence of Nero guarantees that Rome is going to burn by the final episode. Thus, there’s a real uncertainty as to the target of the assassination plot by Catherine de Medici revealed early in the story: is it King Charles of France, the Protestant prince Navarre, a member of the court? The end result is the most compelling of the historicals to date, mostly because the Doctor doesn’t actually do anything at all in the whole story.
Lucarotti’s story features less of the Doctor than any other story to date (though not less of William Hartnell), as our time traveller is absent from the middle two episodes, leaving lone companion Steven to carry the narrative burden, which Peter Purves carries off nicely. Steven could have avoided all the trouble in the story, though, if the Doctor had given him sous instead of golden écu.
The Doctor decides to visit with an apothecary in Paris, asking Steven to remain in a tavern while he’s gone, but Steven, attired satisfactorily with garb from the TARDIS wardrobe, does not have appropriate denominations to pay for the wine ordered by the Doctor. He is rescued from his numismatic distress by a pair of high ranking Protestants, attached to the Admiral de Coligny, a member of the court of King Charles. The Admiral just so happens to be the target of a Catholic assassination plot, aimed at preventing Catholic France from joining the Protestant Dutch in their war against the Catholic Spanish. (Still with me?)
Steven and his new compatriots find out about a Catholic plot of some kind from Anne Chaplet, a serving girl of the house of the Abbot of Amboise, who overhears ominous references to a prior Catholic massacre of Protestants. Steven still tries to stay out of events, but his need to be off the street at curfew leads to his lodging with the Admiral. While there, he sees the Abbot, come to fetch the servant—and it’s the Doctor! Or, William Hartnell, at least. Of course, telling the gathered Protestants that his good friend is the Catholic Abbot come to Paris to help stamp out various heresies doesn’t go over too well and he’s branded a spy.
The story tries desperately to sell the notion that the Doctor has taken the place of the Abbot, whom few people actually knew by sight in Paris. The middle two episodes (in which William Hartnell is credited as the Abbot but not the Doctor) play out very much like a whodunit, with Steven creeping around in bushes under windows and skulking about in the Parisian dark. Even the music in these episodes takes on a tone of skullduggery, full of brassy cymbal crashes, deep bass thrums, and heavy drum beats. Steven is so convinced that the Doctor is playing a part that when they finally meet, he offers up Anne as a bargaining chip, thinking the Doctor is trying to keep his cover intact.
Even when Steven encounters the dead body of the Abbot—murdered by his co-conspirators after the botched assassination of the Admiral, a murder blamed on Protestants as a spur to massacre—he cannot tell that it is not, in fact, the Doctor, though in fairness he was being chased by a Catholic mob at the time.
The contemporary tensions between Protestants and Catholics brewing in Northern Ireland at the time of first airing (February 5, 1966) cannot be dismissed in any assessment of this story, and for a story focused on a Catholic massacre of Protestants, the two sides are depicted as containing their fair share of hot-heads and calm voices. Ultimately the viewer’s sympathy tends towards the Protestant side, as the victims, but the portrayal of Catholics does not seem overly dogmatic, again mostly because the individuals and the setting seem somewhat alien, at least to a modern viewer not versed in the history.
When the Doctor finally reappears in the fourth episode, the story is practically over. No background is given as to just what the Doctor was doing the past few days—he simply vanishes from the story after meeting the apothecary and then reappears after the historical events are on their precipice. Indeed, no attention is even paid to the uncanny resemblance between the Doctor and the Abbot. Once the Doctor realizes the exact date, he wastes no time in rushing himself and Steven, sans explanation, back to the TARDIS to leave at once. In the process, he urges Anne Chaplet to run away and hide somewhere in Paris; he most definitely does not try to save her.
While Steven does make an effort to warn the Admiral’s aides about the assassination plot, they fail to prevent the attempt. The Doctor, for his part, does not try to prevent anything. Steven is enraged when he learns of what happened on that fateful night, especially to Anne, whom he believes they could have saved. Steven castigates the Doctor for his callousness:
Steven: I tell you this much, Doctor. Wherever this machine of yours lands next, I’m getting off. If your “researches” have so little regard for human life, then I want no part of it.
Doctor: We’ve landed.
This moment encapsulates the story’s significance, one that raises it out of the shadow of its more famous third season mates. In the pursuit of his principles, the Doctor does—nothing at all.
He insists to Steven that he cannot interfere with history, yet Steven does depart at their next port of call, prompting the Doctor to despondently catalog all the ways his companions (again, not referred to as such in this story) have always failed to see the truth of his stance on historic inviolability. Though the series will eventually bend (and frankly break) this guiding principle, the Doctor’s utter defeat at his inability to get even “my little Susan” to understand wounds him. It’s a heart-wrenching speech, one that highlights the Doctor’s existential aloneness.
To add to this very solid performance, Hartnell plays the Abbot much differently than the Doctor, with a cold and calculating demeanor that calls back to Hartnell’s earlier roles as a heavy and a testament to his range and abilities. Even his legendary “Billy fluffs” are absent from this story, though in a speech near the end, the script intentionally plays off of his linguistic slipperiness when it has him refer to Ian as “Chatterton” rather than Chesterton, before correcting himself.
The other non-regular actors do not come off quite so well here. The word “Huguenots” is pronounced at least three different ways, often in the same scene, and Annette Robertson’s portrayal of Anne Chaplet carries an affected regional English accent. The pronunciations of French words and phrases comes off better, with the various Rue and such at least close to serviceable. The presentation of King Charles, by Barry Justice, feels overwrought (and overacted), perhaps in an attempt to explain the character’s eventual acceptance of the plans for the massacre.
Steven comes back in the end, as the TARDIS has landed in, well, 1966 England. Again. They’re in Wimbledon Commons this time, and police officers are on their way to use the police box to report an accident. Someone beat Steven into the blue chameleon, though: Dodo (Jackie Lane), a sassy, modish English woman in her late teens or early twenties. Or, Dorothea Chaplet, in full, granddaughter of a Frenchman and, quite possibly, descendant of Anne Chaplet. So she survived after all, allowing Steven’s anger at the Doctor to subside.
The Doctor remarks at how much Dodo looks like Susan and gives her a huge hug. Though only after he’s kidnapped her from her own time in his hurry to avoid the police. He really does have a habit of snatching people from ’60s England.
(Image via the BBC.)
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Post 22 of the Doctor Who Re-Watching Project